I picked up a copy of Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, which is a fascinating read. At the beginning of each chapter he has some great quotes and I loved this one by Paul Shepard (from Man in the Landscape: A Historic View of the Esthetics of Nature)
“To the desert to prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles. Here the leaders of the great religions have sought the therapeutic and spiritual waves of retreat, not to escape but find reality.”
I have started into Wright’s book, Simply Jesus. I have grown to really like his writing and am challenged by his thinking.
To start off this book, it is about recognizing Jesus is in charge.
It was dangerous talk in Jesus’ day. It’s not very welcome in our day, either.
“Our culture has become used to thinking of Jesus as a ‘religious’ figure rather than a ‘political’ one. We have seen those two categories as watertight compartments, to be kept strictly separate. But it wasn’t like that for Jesus and others of his time… What would it look like… if Jesus not only was in charge then, but is in charge today as well?”
My goal this year is to attempt to re-read some key books that have influenced my life and to slow down on the number of books I read this year to try to read deeper.
I am not sure how the “slower” is going to go, but I did finish Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain as my first book. If I do a project where I re-read things, I start with Merton because his book (besides Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy) is the only book I’ve read multiple times. Merton writes in a way where I grab something new, or am challenged again, every time I read his story.
The lesson I am always challenged with in Merton’s life is prayer. We make the mistake in our Pentecostal circles (and Western evangelical circles) that motion is godly. You have to have ACTION.
What Merton teaches me is PRAYER is action. Withdrawing to a monastery is not retreat from spiritual warfare.
His spiritual mentor gave him incredible words of advice when Merton first entered the monastic life:
“Who knows how many souls are depending on your perseverance in this monastery? Perhaps God has ordained that there are many in the world who will only be saved through your fidelity to your vocation. You must remember them if you are ever tempted to leave. And you will probably be tempted to leave.”
We need to understand the weight of our intercession. There is truly a great battle we undertake when we stay at the task of prayer.
Several years ago I was sharing with a historian in our denomination my work on the monks of the 4th Century in Egypt and what I was learning about their “Pentecostal” experience. He dismissed it quickly, saying that he wasn’t interested in people who retreated from culture and the world instead of engaging it.
We really need to give up this “either/or” thinking, but when it’s embedded culturally over hundreds of years, it’s tough.
Not giving that up is what keeps this nation divided politically and culturally.
Not giving that thinking up also keeps us from learning the value of “both/and” when it comes to “engagement” with this world and particularly this culture. To withdraw is not necessarily the same as to retreat from this world.
Thomas Merton is the one who taught me this lesson. In Seven Storey Mountain he comes to a place where he is trying to understand vocation for his life and thinks he is not called to the monastic life. Nevertheless, he feels led to go off for a week to a monastery in Kentucky. As he enters the monastery he begins to see the life of sacrifice this particular order was called to, but it was not a retreat from the world.
This was 1941. The world was exploding in war and the U.S. was racing toward involvement. It would be easy to think these monks were retreating from the cause. They were ducking their responsibility. The Lord taught Merton another lesson.
“… these men are dying for Me. These monks are killing themselves for Me: and for you, for the world, for the people who do not know Me, for the millions that will never know them on this earth…”
Merton came to realize that their life of withdrawal from “culture” was a life entering into deep spiritual warfare, especially in that time period. He is fundamentally convinced that their prayers kept the world from destroying itself. He even ponders what would have happened if more people had heard that call to prayer…
To withdraw is not necessarily retreat from responsibility in this world. It may be the most responsible thing to do. The primary task is to hear the call of God and respond.
What has attracted me to Seven Storey Mountain over the years is the process of coming to faith. Merton sees his life in process and even when he “comes to faith,” it’s a process.
The passage of his confession and baptism into the Catholic Church is still one of the most moving passages I have ever read. He details the weight that is lifted off his shoulders, the confession of faith, the renouncing of the devil, the exorcising of demons from his life (and he knows they left), and so much more.
When he knew he needed to come to faith and decided to become Catholic, it wasn’t our typical “altar call.” He sought out the priest he knew and the priest gave him three books, telling him to read the books, consider what he was doing, then come back.
That’s just not “godly!” 😉
We could use far more consideration of what God may be doing in our lives and less “spur of the moment” activity. We need to recognize what God is doing all along the way, and even when we have someone come and say, “I want to come into the Kingdom,” we still need to have the fortitude to say, “Let’s consider this.”
I think it may help us from erasing all those notches on our “gospel gun belt.” You know… we have our “gospel gun” like the old West and when someone comes to faith because of our “sharing the faith,” we put a “notch” on our belt. Trouble is, we “shoot” so quick, a lot of those “notches” don’t seem to “stick.”
Lord, help us consider the cost of following you.
I am working through Merton’s autobiography, Seven Storey Mountain. In college he was gaining more of an awareness of God through his study of literature. At the end of one summer, he wrote this:
“By the time summer was over, I was to become conscious of the fact that the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God.”
It’s a beautiful statement that I want in my own life.
My goal for reading this year is to read slllllooooowwwwweeeerr… and repeat some books.
Repeating books: check.
The one book I have read multiple times… okay… a second book I have read multiple times is Seven Storey Mountain, the autobiography of Thomas Merton. This is my first read of the year. This book is very easy for me to read every year or two. This is much like a modern Confessions by Augustine. And the writing is wonderful.
Merton tells his story of coming into the monastic life after he comes to faith. As he weaves his story he also drops in marvelous insights into culture. It is amazing to me how someone describing something in the 1930s sounds so much like today.
He has a critique of all manmade social systems. So, he IS critical of capitalism… and communism. He sees their weaknesses. It’s not that one can’t live in them… but he sees the cracks.
“We live in a society whose whole policy is to excite every nerve in the human body and keep it at the highest pitch of artificial tension… to create as many new desires and synthetic passions as possible, in order to cater to them with the products our factories and printing presses and movie studios and all the rest.”
It is really hard to believe he was observing life in the 1930s with that paragraph and not our current culture.
And for communism:
“The chief weakness of Communism, is that it is, itself, only another breed of the same materialism which is the source and root of all the evils which it so clearly sees…”
The book is far more than observations on man-made systems. He looks back and sees the hand of God drawing him all along the journey. He recognizes key points where he is saved from really stupid choices and wonders about the power of prayer.
The search for God, the restlessness of his soul, the coming to faith, then to the monastic life… it’s a wonderful read.